The Prize Cat by E. J. Pratt

The Prize Cat, by E. J. Pratt 

"The Prize Cat" opens during the closing moments of a breeders' competition for purebred cats. One choice specimen has finally been selected as the winner. This cat is held up as the paragon of house cats, the result of hundreds of generations of selective breeding. She is "soft-mannered, musical in purr". Her fur is soft, silky, and well-groomed.

Even her very birth was a planned thing, a wanted thing. She is an "aristocat", not a common mongrel. "The ribbon had declared the breed, gentility was in the fur." To look at her, one would never suspect her of being anything other than what humans expect and intend her to be. The prize cat is a gentle, good natured animal. As she lives with her devoted host in a pampered environment, she hardly seems to resemble her wild leopard ancestors. Her docile tameness stands in stark contrast to their fierce, bold nature.

"What distance since those velvet pads/ Departed from the leopard's track!"

E.J. Pratt uses the vast distance in miles between America and Asain/African jungles where leopards live to illustrate the vastly different natures of the housecat and its wild ancestors. In the third stanza, the poet reflects on the changes which time and human effort have managed to force upon the domestic cat. Time has "thinned/ The jungle strains within the cells.", as man tries to work within the time frame of evolution. Applied principles of genetics and selective breeding have effectively restrained, confined, and watered down the killer instinct.

The poet muses "how human hands had disciplined/ Those prowling optic parallels". Man has conquered the beast, making a pet out of a once-feared predator. But has he really eliminated all traces of wilderness completely from the cat's nature? The next stanza answers this question with a picture that is both striking and somewhat surprising. The tone changes abruptly.

As the poet watches, he sees the gentle prize cat capture a bird in flight. No, the wild jungle instinct has not been eliminated after all, only buried deep in the subconscious until it is triggered by the vision of a bird in flight. Every sinew in her body pulsates with the living magic of the pursuit as she pounces on her prey with lightening speed. It would seem to the poet as if her true  nature had been kept in a spring, tightly coiled, until something triggered it.

For the moment, the prize cat does not care what her owners think of her as she springs into action with a flying leap. "I saw the generations pass along the reflex of a spring,/ A bird had rustled in the grass,/ The tab had caught it on the wing:" The cat's eyes gleam like fire; a flame lit in the heart of an ancient jungle lives again. This fire may die down a bit and nearly go out from time to time, but it is never truly quenched. The sight of a bird just within reach of her lethal talons ignites a passion within her. The sudden surge of power in her bounding leap momentarily transports the observer back through space and time to the ancient land of Abysinnia, where the housecat wa first domesticated, The cry of the perishing white-throated bird seems to echo through the centuries to the frightened cry of an Abysinnian child being chased by a whitethroated tiger or panther. "I thought an Abysinnian child/Had cried out in the whitethroat's scream."

What a contrast to the beginning of this striking poem. Few poems better express the paradox of a pussy better than "The Prize Cat". Every owner of a domestic feline has doubtless been mystified by the fickleness of its nature. A calm, silky, gentle, purring picture of contentment at one moment, the sight of some poor creature smaller than itself can in a single instant transform man's gentle pet into a mighty hunter.

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